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Ratcatcher (1999)

Main image of Ratcatcher (1999)
35mm, colour, 93 mins
DirectorLynne Ramsay
Production CompanyHoly Cow Films
ProducerGavin Emerson
ScreenplayLynne Ramsay
PhotographyAlwin K├╝chler
MusicRachel Portman

William Eadie (James Gillespie); Tommy Flanagan (Da); Mandy Matthews (Ma); Michelle Stewart (Ellen Gillespie); Lynne Ramsay Jr (Anne Marie Gillespie); Leanne Mullen (Margaret Anne)

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After 12-year-old Ryan drowns during a mock fight, his friend James experiences the first of many stages in his coming of age in early 1970s Glasgow.

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Lynne Ramsay's first feature is a harrowingly beautiful tale of adolescence that deepens and refines the themes articulated in her three award-winning shorts. Much like American director David Gordon Green's contemporaneous debut, George Washington (US, 2000), Ramsay's film is concerned with the subjective experience of childhood and its relation to death amid urban decay - against the backdrop of 1973's crippling Glasgow dustmen's strike. Ratcatcher, however, is contemplative rather than didactic, hijacking the British tradition of social realism and steering it into uncharted and distinctly poetic waters.

One body of water in particular - a forbidding local canal - provides an anchor for the impressionistic and episodic narrative and holds a mysterious attraction for the young protagonist, James Ramsay. The water's murky surface marks a tenuous boundary - between life and death, innocence and experience - to which James constantly returns. In the bold opening sequence, James is secretly implicated in the accidental drowning of a neighbourhood playmate. The scar this incident leaves only makes the awkwardness of emerging adolescence more acute, from the disinterested father who insists on buying the sensitive, unathletic lad football shoes to the older girl who befriends James by placing his hand on her leg.

Taking her cue from still photography, Ramsay hones her narrative in its moments of inactivity, in their potential for movement. Time seems to slow for James, and pangs of discovery intermingle joy with sadness, as when his fingers touchingly examine his sleeping mother's toe, suggesting poverty by poking out through an old nylon. It is also with the patience of a photographer that Ramsay approaches her subjects. Her family scenes breathe with a rare naturalness, and her direction of children allows for their irritating qualities, making them wholly un-irritating. A willingness to spend time with her complex, broken characters - especially James' Da - rather than relying on thumbnail illustrations, is what grants the often grim Ratcatcher its moments of sublimity and grace.

In the film's ambiguous conclusion, Ramsay confers upon her child hero the same measure of redemptive grace, allowing us to see through his eyes. The canal finally claims him beneath its reflective surface, but in his mortality he sees an exultant vision. The earth and slate tones of the slum fall away and an ordinary housing development by a field becomes a paradise of promise. The viewer is lifted with James in the hope of a better world to come.

Dominic Leppla

*This film is the subject of a BFI Film Classics book by Annette Kuhn.

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Video Clips
Kill the Day (1997)
Radclyffe, Sarah (1950-)
Ramsay, Lynne (1969-)
Children on Film